Obama adjusts timing on Iraq withdrawal
The president listens to tactical commanders in extending it to 19 months.
Washington and baghdad
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The drawdown plan Mr. Obama is set to announce in the next week is likely to have most US troops leaving Iraq by mid-2010. This is slightly later than the 16-month withdrawal plan his presidential campaign had promised and reflects Obama's willingness to listen to his military commanders, some of whom want a slower drawdown.
The significance of the decision is also tempered by how much wiggle room the new commander in chief leaves himself on two issues: how he chooses to respond to changing security conditions on the ground in Iraq, and the size of a residual force to be left in Iraq for the years to come.
The move strikes the right balance, say some. "This seems to be in many ways the best compromise for this particular point in time," says Tony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "If conditions change, then we have to rethink it."
The decision in favor of a 19-month withdrawal was first reported by the Associated Press Tuesday, and senior military officials have confirmed it. However, one US defense official warns that no decision has been made yet and that the White House and Pentagon are still in "recommendation mode."
Obama is also expected to announce a new way ahead in Afghanistan in the coming weeks. Last week, the White House announced that it would send up to 17,000 additional troops to the war in Afghanistan by summer even as it debates how to marry the extra forces with a new strategy.
There are currently about 142,000 American troops in Iraq, which includes 14 combat brigades and thousands of support troops. Military commanders had presented Obama with alternative scenarios for different withdrawal timelines, including plans for drawing down troops in 16 months, 19 months, and 23 months. The last was closest to the one favored by Gen. Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq.
In Iraq, the decision on withdrawal is less significant than the one Obama will have to make by 2010 – how many American forces will stay on.
Some military commanders have said the US should leave as many as 35,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq to advise and train the Iraqi security forces. The Obama White House may not indicate the size of that residual force might be any time soon, however, as any number could be immediately criticized by the American and Iraqi public. "We would be out of our mind to specify a residual force," says Mr. Cordesman.
One Iraqi official says the US and Iraq have not yet begun negotiations on the size of the residual force, adding that the Obama administration, currently focused on the American economy and ramping up operations in Afghanistan, was far less engaged with Iraq policy than the previous administration.